Narrow Escape

The most publicized Alaskan picture is without a shadow of a doubt, a sled with a dog team pulling it. It is rather fascinating to sit in a sled and ride over a good trail. Many a Cheechako would give a great deal just to own a dog team as a pleasurable hobby. But before he invests in a dog team I suggest he ask someone who owns one, as an automobile advertisement used to say.

Naturally, using a dog team means snow and ice … winter and cold … but the prospective owner must not forget that there are also many dangers to the driver and his team, especially when the trail crosses rivers and streams.
Once I had an experience that almost cost me my life and my team. We were relaying on Solo Creek way up in the Shishana district. My partner, building a cabin, and yours truly hauling our grub, bedding and tools.
We had seven dogs and fed them mostly on rabbits, corn meal and lard. When evening came and camp was made and the dogs were lying around the campfire, it was then up to me to cook a mess of dog food in a five-gallon can; or I would set snares or shoot rabbits. The tired dogs lay comfortably in the snow while the tired dog musher had to prepare a meal for the huskies. Many times I have heard old timers say the hardest working dog in the outfit is the driver.
Our own meal was, usually, very easy to get ready, because, before going on a long trip, we made preparations for food that could be gotten ready without waiting too long. We made sourdough bread, and as soon as it came out of the oven–piping hot–it was placed out of doors where, with the thermometer hovering around 60 degrees below zero, the bread would shortly freeze as hard as a stone. Next, on the stove stood a five-gallon can, with boiling bacon and beans and maybe some dehydrated onions. When this was well-cooked, it too, was set out of doors just long enough to chill.
Then the whole can of beans was dumped into a clean flour sack. This was also left outdoors and frozen hard. And so, going on a stampede or just traveling or relaying as we did, on top of the sled lay several days of food ready for use.
When the dogs were fed, a large frying pan was placed on the fire. With an axe, we cut off a chunk of frozen beans about four inches thick and placed this in the pan. Then we chopped off a couple slices of bread by the same method–using an axe–and, laying them on top of the beans, in no time at all we had hot beans and the steam of the beans had thawed out the bread. Using melted snow, we made tea. And this delicious dinner would hardly take more than 10 to 15 minutes to prepare for serving.
Oh, how wonderful that tasted! By moving the fire, we had a warm floor to lay our bedding on. And while the stars were twinkling overhead and the aurora borealis was streaking across the sky, we enjoyed a well-earned sleep among the huskies and malamutes.
Yes, almost everyone used dogs–if one could afford them–preachers, prospectors, and mail carriers. We got our team of seven rather cheaply. When we left for the Shishana on the well-known stampede, we picked up, in Dawson, a female who from the look of things was “expecting?”
While traveling by boat on the river, she gave birth to seven pups who, by winter, became our dog team. The harness was made mainly of canvas strips, the collars of birchwood, cut and fashioned by hand and wrapped with old strips of blanket. The sled was hand-made. Having no nails, we put it together with moose hide thongs. It was not very fancy, but it answered the purpose of transportation. But to return to the story of my experience of almost losing my life and dog team.
One morning, about half a mile from where I had made camp for the night, there was a large stream to cross which, as expected, was frozen over, it being December. About halfway across the ice, the leader and the swing dog fell through the ice. We had mushed right into an overflow. An overflow is a stretch of open water which is almost impossible to see because fresh-fallen snow does not melt but merely makes a light coat over the water.
The dogs were floundering in the water, and the sled, too, began to sink. Quickly I took the pole axe from the sled, crawled on top of the sled and with one swing cut the main pulling rope, releasing the dogs who were beginning to fight among themselves, but who, while still hitched to the sled, were not able to swim to the other side of the river.
Making a turn about, I fell partly through the ice, but made it to shore all right. However, I was wet to the skin and cold to the bone. All my clothes froze on me and it was very difficult to walk. First, I thought of making a fire, but my axe and my mackinaw coat with matches were on the sled, half submerged in the river.
But one lucky thought struck me–maybe there was still some fire at my last camp. In winter, we don’t bother to put out a fire as the snow prevents a fire from spreading. So I started back. Walking was very tiresome, for the snow was sticking to my wet clothing. How long it took me, I don’t know, but I remember that towards the end I crawled on my knees to the old camping ground. The fire was out. Only a few pieces of charcoal remained.
I got panicky; then I thought, “Maybe there is still a little spark left.”
Lying in the snow, I began to blow at the black sticks. Yes, there was a little glow. I blew harder and harder–hah–a tiny little flame began to lick at the charcoaled sticks. I grabbed some little spruce twigs and laid them over the charcoal. By constant blowing, a real flame came up, large enough to make a crackling fire. Thank God, I was saved!
I made another fire, and standing between the two fires, I dried my clothing.
After calling the dogs back and untangling them–which was quite a job–I stayed overnight at my old camp. While the dogs and I were hungry, we were not cold.
The next morning, I went up to the river to look at the place where the sled was now frozen in the ice. The dogs, walking ahead of me, crossed the ice without mishap, until they reached the sled. I, too, walking cautiously, approached the sled. Lo and behold, the overflow had frozen solid and broken open a mile or so below. I found the axe, cut the sled loose and pulled it onto solid ice. In a little time, I fixed up the harness and with my team and sled crossed the river safely.
Heinie Snider

Artwork by Heinie Snider’s grandson Gerrit Hjellen

If we had had a loose leader, as the White boys had, this accident would not have happened to me and my team. These two young men, who owned a team of eleven dogs, had a loose leader, a female by the name of Susan. Susan had never had a harness on her. She never had to pull a sled; she was what might be called the safety engineer.
Running a half mile or so ahead of the team and coming to a river or creek, she would slowly and cautiously, foot by foot, walk on the ice. If her feet got wet because of water under the snow–which is a sure sign of an overflow–she would return to the bank, walk up or down stream for a distance, and try again. If her feet again got wet, she would repeat her performance, looking for a safe place to cross until she finally located one.
By following the loose leader, the two brothers and the team would cross the treacherous river safely.
Alaskan malamutes and huskies were the real freighters in those days. Remember the famous leader Balto, who brought the anti-toxin to Nome? The Alaskan dog was, to the prospector and mail carrier, what the reindeer was to the Laplander and the pony to the cowboys of the West–a valuable beast of burden…
Printed with permission from the family of Gerrit Heinie Snider

Story by Gerrit Heinie Snider – From his book, Centennial – 100 Stories of Alaska, originally published in 1966

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1 Comment

  1. Roger Lincoln

    I love this story and I have the book it was taken from. Hard to beat the tales of Heinie Snider, a man larger than life.
    Roger Lincoln


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